I am very lucky to be a part of a residency program that encourages academic enrichment years. My co-residents have all engaged in 1-3 years of clinical research, pursued additional degrees such as Masters of Public Health or basic science research. Training at an academic institution, I was impressed by my attendings’ knowledge of the latest basic science research being done in cardiothoracic surgery and how it affects their decision-making in the clinical realm on a daily basis. Furthermore, we have surgical attendings who have labs, are NIH-funded and engaging in basic science research. Being interested in academic surgery, I knew that I needed to strengthen this aspect of my career. Surgeons can help multiple people on a daily basis. Physician-scientists, like the late Dr. Thomas Starzl, can change the face of medicine and affect the masses.
I decided to join the Thoracic Aortic Disease Research Laboratory at the end of my PGY3 year. Our focus is on biscuspid aortic valve aortopathy. Initially, I struggled. I had done minimal basic science research as an undergrad and only clinical research as a medical student and during my first three years of residency. However, I went from learning basic cell culture to being NIH-funded on a F32. These are a couple things I’ve learned on my journey that have helped me:
Put in the hours.
Surgical residencies are rigorous and require long-hours. There is a misconception that residents get to “relax” in the lab. Sure, life and death situations are minimal in the lab, but the goal-oriented rigorous mentality should be maintained for your basic science research years. This is particularly the case if it is the first foray, like many of us surgical residents, into the basic sciences.
Understand everything that is going on around you. Much like during residency when you’re expected to learn all the procedures, learn all the assays and understand each step. Make a schedule, get to the lab early, and leave only when all the work is done. Learn from the others in the lab. Most have been doing your job for many years and are skilled at getting things done. Learn the nuances of basic science from them and you will be better prepared to develop research projects, think like a scientist, and become independent as a basic science researcher.
Unlike surgery, where immediate results are usually seen after surgery, projects and assays may not be successful immediately and may need constant optimization. Rome was not built in a day and a project is not completed that quickly either.
Get to know your neighboring.
Being that basic science research was new to me, I spent the first 3 months trying to figure out how to do lab work on my own. I had always looked busy, putting in the hours, but I was busy struggling. I found that the techs, post-doctoral fellows, and PhD’s were helpful guides to troubleshooting my problems. You may not be able to talk with your principal investigator on a daily basis. However, those around me had been doing basic science research as long as I had been studying medicine and surgery. They are the experts at getting the job done, much like I was in the hospital. Developing that common bond and understanding created a mutualism and enhances my experience.
Attend basic science conferences.
Being able to connect the clinical aspects of a patient care to the basic sciences is extremely exciting. Many basic science conferences are saturated with researchers who do not have experience with clinical medicine. Attending basic science conferences has allowed me to network with other researchers of other institutions regarding exciting and cutting edge research. It opens channels of collaboration and sparks ideas in my own research. Understand that your clinical expertise is helpful to guide research and connect the dots.
Apply for a grant
I believe this is the ultimate task for a resident in the lab. More than publishing a paper, obtaining a grant shows the development of independence, the knowledge of basic science to formulate a questions and create experiments that will test that question. Finally, the joy of a successful grant is what most of my mentors search for constantly. However, being rejected is just as important because it shows the deficits in your grant writing abilities, thought process, and experimental design/scientific method. Like after a code or an operative death, this is an opportunity to reflect and learn about your weaknesses and faults. Ask for comments and critique for your grant from everyone. The reviewer comments will help you adapt and improve for future grants.
Like residency, basic science research allows residents to expand their knowledge base, develop independence, attempt and fail in a protected environment, and make a difference in the world. I encourage all residents to consider this in their career.